By Lisa Steele, Blue Seal Brand Ambassador
Each spring, our thoughts turn to baby chicks. Whether we are expanding our existing flock or just starting out with chickens for the first time, getting a few chicks is the best way to add flock members. On the other hand, adding pullets or grown hens can bring a host of potential problems – like the risk of transmitting infectious disease to your other chickens. Not knowing the exact age of the birds, their health histories or information on their previous diet and care are additional challenges.
Here are some tips to get your Chick Days going in the right direction.
Turn to your local feed store first
Purchasing older chickens from a swap or fair also means that you could be buying someone else’s problem. The egg eaters, bullies, poor layers etc. are likely what is going to be for sale – people don’t generally sell their sweetest hen or best layer.
If you are looking for a specific breed of chicken, then turning to an online breeder or hatchery might be your only option. But to find some chicks to fill a backyard coop, your local feed store is the best place to start. Shipping just a few chicks from a breeder or hatchery puts the chicks more at risk of being chilled or injured during shipping, whereas feed stores order chicks by the hundreds so they are kept much warmer in the shipping boxes from all the communal body heat inside.
Your local feed store will also carry breeds that are appropriate for the area where you live: the more cold-hardy breeds in the northern states, heat-tolerant breeds if you live in the south. While most chickens do just fine in moderate heat as well as pretty extreme cold, there are some breeds that do better in one climate versus the other.
Decide on the breed and sex of your chickens
The hatcheries sex the chicks before shipping, and most feed stores only sell females, or will have bins marked “straight run” which means that males and females are mixed in that lot. If you are only wanting hens, avoid the “straight run” bins!
Feed stores tend to carry the more popular breeds that are good layers and have nice temperaments for the family flock. These include: Australorps, Buff Orpingtons, Barred Rock and Rhode Island Red, to name a few. In recent years, due to customer demand, feed stores have offered more “exotic” breeds such as Easter Eggers, Cochins, Brahmas and even bantams and silkies.
Reputable feed stores such as Blue Seal will only order chicks from hatcheries with NPIP certification. In addition, many hatcheries vaccinate the chicks against Coccidiosis and/or Mareks before shipping them.
Watch the chickens before you choose
When you arrive at the feed store ready to choose your chicks, it’s a good idea to stand and watch them for a while. Conscientious feed store employees will monitor the chicks and remove any that look sick, but it’s still a good idea to take a minute to observe them on your own.
Most feed stores won’t allow customers to handle the chicks before purchase, for safety and health reasons, and many often keep the chicks in stock tanks inside a corral or tiered brooders. But by observing them before picking out the ones you want, you have a better chance of going home with the strongest and healthiest chicks.
What to look for
You’ll want chicks that are moving around, peeping softly, and eating and drinking. Although chicks do sleep at various times during the day, it’s best to avoid choosing a chick that is sleeping, lying down or has its head hanging down. It could just be tired, but it could also be a sign of illness. Lethargic or puffed up chicks should be avoided, as should a chick that’s peeping loudly.
Identify the specific chicks you are interested in and then ask the feed store employee to catch them for you. It’s a good sign if the targeted chick is hard to catch! Fast-moving chicks are generally pretty healthy and have recovered from the shipping. Once the chick is caught she will likely chirp loudly, but should calm down fairly quickly.
Take a minute to look the chick over before it’s put in the box. The chick’s eyes should be alert and clear and the chick should make eye contact with you. Runny, crusty or cloudy eyes aren’t a good sign. Nostrils should be dry. The chick’s beak should line up correctly. Check that the chick’s legs are straight and the chick can stand normally without her feet being splayed. Her toes should be flat and not curled.
The last thing you need to check is the chick’s vent. The vent should be clear, with no feces caked on it. Stress or temperature fluctuations can cause this potentially fatal condition, so if you do see any chicks with pasted up vents, the feed store employee should immediately remove the chick and clean up the poop with warm water. Chicks with pasty butts can recover and live long healthy lives, but it’s probably best to leave that chick and choose another.
Lisa Steele is a 5th generation chicken keeper, author, DIYer and master gardener. Follow her blog at www.fresheggsdaily.com.